Validation: a pragmatic approach

Recently the web standards debate has taken an interesting turn, with many standards advocates re-evaluating the role of validation in their daily practice. Most recently Ethan Marcotte contributed an article titled Where Our Standards Went Wrong to A List Apart. Marcotte concluded that validation is still a vital part of any web development project, but the fact that the opposite side of the argument was given serious consideration is significant.

Consider the viewpoint of Douglas Bowman, quoted in Marcotte’s article:

Validation is something I only do on my own work now.

Bowman was part of the team responsible for the 2002 redesign of Wired News using web standards and CSS. Wired News was one of the first major standards compliant sites, and helped pave the way for the web standards revolution. So for Bowman to state that validation of client websites is no longer an important consideration is quite an eye opener.

What designers like Bowman advocate is a pragmatic approach to web standards, an acknowledgment that validation is not practical in every situation. Non-compliant Content Management Systems and authoring tools, multi-developer teams and (let’s face it) poor attention to detail can all result in the production of invalid markup. When balancing the benefits of standards compliant markup against the time and cost required to overcome these obstacles, sometimes compliance is going to lose out.

I personally believe that web standards should be a cornerstone of any modern web design project. However, I also understand that given a limited timeframe and budget in which to produce a website, a certain level of compromise is sometimes inevitable, and perfectly acceptable. Consider the following common validation slip ups:

  • Images missing an alt attribute
  • Unencoded ampersands
  • Empty <p></p> or <div></div> elements
  • Uppercase XHTML tag and attribute names

All of these oversights will result in XHTML validation warnings or errors, but presently will not impact on the way a document renders or functions in a web browser. Neither do I expect these errors will cause significant problems in future browsers – I find it hard to imagine a web browser refusing to display a page simply because it contains an empty paragraph element.

Certainly if I notice any such errors during the development of a site I fix them straight away. However if I identify the errors at a later date, or they creep into the site during a content update, then I question the importance of correcting them immediately. In the past I would have dropped whatever I was doing and rushed to squash the offensive (but invisible) validation error, almost as a matter of personal pride. Today I am more inclined to add it to my to-do list for the next occasion I’m working on the site. In the meantime I know that both my client and the site’s user base will be totally oblivious to the ‘problem’.

In this discussion it is important not to lose sight of the benefits that standards based design undoubtedly brings to our workflow. Quicker development cycles, faster loading pages, simpler site redesigns, and improved search engine visibility are just some of the gains to be had by producing semantic and standards compliant documents. But our job as web designers is not merely to produce sites that adhere to the standards of our industry. There are also technical, budgetary and timeframe requirements to be factored in. By taking a pragmatic approach to validation it is possible to meet these demands without abandoning our commitment to web standards.

4 thoughts on “Validation: a pragmatic approach

  1. Ethan says:

    There are also technical, budgetary and timeframe requirements to be factored in

    True. But I think that I was trying to underscore that invalid code can impact all of the vectors you just mentioned, impacting our ability to maintain our sites in a cost-effective and timely manner. So while it’s definitely not easy to produce a perfectly valid site (not by a long shot), we need to start investigating the roadblocks that keep us from doing so.

  2. I agree mostly. “Images missing an alt attribute” is not just a parsing problem but a problem with the content of the site. In my opinion that does affect the rendering of the page, just not to most. Validation is a tool, but lets not miss the issues it’s trying to fix. Good article.

  3. Jonathan says:

    @Ethan: You are correct of course that invalid code has wide reaching repercussions. I look forward to the forthcoming ALA article you mention at the conclusion of your feature, which will investigate ways to tackle validation roadblocks. The pragmatic approach is born of imperfect conditions that I hope the web development community can rally together to overcome.

    @Emil: Yes, it is true that missing alt attributes have an impact beyond this visible, I’m pleased you brought it up. Both search engine visibility and site accessibility will suffer if non-decorative images lack a meaningful alt attribute.

  4. I think that validation should stay as an important element in web design whether it is your website or a clients. I also think that sloppy coding like uppercase elements, empty p tags etc should stay as invalid code.

    However I reconise and agree that sometimes you get to a point in a design that one little error or two is not that important when it comes to the final product.

    The way I see it is that validation is the foundation for a website (house) and without it, it will not stand the test of time and fall down…

    btw great article

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